Enhancing Your Therapy with Gestalt Approaches
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Section 4
Word Changes During Therapy

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On the last track, we discussed three techniques that can enhance a client's awareness during counseling.  These three techniques were repeating, exaggeration, and staying with.

On this track, we will discuss three Gestalt techniques regarding changing words when speaking that can increase your client's self-awareness. These three instances are: changing "it" to "I", changing "can't" to "won't", and changing "have to" to "choose to".

As you know, a person's language is not necessarily spontaneous.  Speech can be manipulated so that what a client is trying to say is masked in words which convey a different meaning.  Some of these manipulations are unique to individual clients, but some manipulations have become a part of idiomatic English.  For example, the phrase 'it's good to be here today' depersonalizes the statement and distracts the speaker from his or her own feelings of happiness. 

Clearly, saying 'I feel happy to be here' focuses the speaker more on his or her own feelings in the 'now'.  I find that by encouraging clients to change words that depersonalize or distract, it becomes easier for clients to discuss their feelings.

Three Examples Regarding Word Choice

Example #1 - Changing 'It' to 'I'
The first example in which changing words can increase self awareness is changing "it" to "I".  Would you agree that many a client uses "it" instead of "I", the more he or she will experience the self as an "it"?  Larry, 53, had been forced into early retirement due to heart trouble, and was having difficulty adjusting to his new lifestyle.  Larry stated.  "It’s so aggravating that my wife Dianne keeps telling me to relax!" 

I stated to Larry, "Say that again, but try saying it another way, using 'I' instead of it."  Larry replied, "Ok… I feel aggravated that my wife keeps telling me to relax?"  I stated, "So you feel aggravated at Dianne?"  Larry stated, "Yes!  I feel aggravated at Dianne!"  By focusing on replacing "it" with "I", Larry's awareness of his feelings of aggravation increased, and we were able to move on to discussing what specifically triggered Larry's aggravation.  Would your increased of a client's use of the word "it" rather than "I" in your next session be beneficial?

Example #2 - Changing 'Can't' to 'Won't'
second example in which changing words to increase client's self awareness is changing "can't" to "won't". Clearly, sometimes a client's use of the word 'can't' is appropriate. A client may have certain limitations, and accepting real restrictions can be a source of growth for a client.  However, would you agree that often, clients say 'can't' when the real restrictions are within the realm of 'can if I choose'? 

In this case, many clients actually experience the impasse of 'can't', and feel unable.  I find that asking a client to substitute 'won't' for 'can't' is a way of enhancing the awareness of his or her responsibility for the refusal or fear that is at the base of the 'can't'.  Remember Suzanne from Track 1?  In a recent session, Suzanne stated, "I just can't do my Math homework for class tomorrow!"

6-Step Technique: Can't Substitution
To help Suzanne recognize the differences between the words 'can't' and 'won't", I asked her to try the "Can't Substitution" technique.  Here's an outline of the 6 steps I used with Suzanne. These steps are outlined in the back of the Manual that accompanies this course.  I stated….

-- 1. Try to recall some other 'can't' statement that you use often.  Repeat them slowly to yourself, and notice the feelings that accompany them.
-- 2. You may recognize that there are some things on your list that you actually cannot do.  See if you can tell the differences between the types of can't statements.  Are there some you could do if you invested the time and energy it would require?
-- 3. Focus on your other can't statements.  Repeat them a few times.  Now try substituting 'won't' where you said 'can't.  Do you feel any difference?
-- 4. Now, repeat one of the won't statements again, and be aware of the feelings that come with it.  Are you taking the responsibility that is a part of saying "I will not"? 
-- 5. Try to get in touch with the nature of your refusal.  Allow the refusal to expand.  Feel the strength that is in it. 
-- 6.  Compare how you feel when making a "won't" statement to how you feel when you make a "can't" statement.  The difference is your sense of responsibility for your behavior."

Suzanne stated, "I actually feel a bit relieved. That's how I feel. I won't do my math homework, because I feel afraid of getting another bad grade no matter how hard I try! I feel that if I'm going to do bad anyway, why spend the effort in the first place?!" 

I find that for some clients, examining their feelings of defiance behind a "won't" statement can be valuable.  Experiencing the strength evident in defiance can help clients own and accept their inner strength, which is necessary for learning how to use this strength constructively. Would you agree?  Would your Suzanne benefit from the Can't Substitution technique?

Example #3 - Changing 'Have to' to 'Choose to'
In addition to changing "it" to "I", and changing "can't" to "won't", a third example in which changing words when speaking to increase client self-awareness is changing "have to" to "choose to".  When discussing her plans for her next semester, Suzanne stated, "I have to take Psychology again next semester!  What a pain in the butt!"  I stated, "Who says you 'have to'?"  Suzanne responded, "Well, everyone I've talked to said that if you want to get in to marketing, you have to take psychology courses." 

I stated, "But who says you have to?"  Suzanne thought for a couple of minutes, and then stated, "Well, I guess I have to, if I want to get a good marketing job."  I asked Suzanne to substitute the words "choose to" for "have to".  Suzanne stated, "I am choosing to take psychology, because I want to work in marketing." 

Clearly, some clients, like Suzanne, may try to avoid the fact that they are responsible for putting themselves in discomforting situations.  However, until these clients recognize and accept that they are behaving in accordance with their choices, they may not recognize their power to generate alternatives.  Agree? 

Do you have a client like Suzanne who would benefit from learning to say "I choose to" instead of "I have to?"

On this track, we have discussed three instances in which changing words when speaking can increase self-awareness.  These three instances are: changing "it" to "I", changing "can't" to "won't", and changing "have to" to "choose to".

On the next track, we will discuss three changes counselors and clients can make to their sentences to enhance self-awareness.  These three changes are, changing passive voice to active voice, changing questions to statements, and asking "how" and "what" instead of "why".

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Elliott, R. (2014). Review of Gestalt therapy in clinical practice: From psychopathology to the aesthetics of contact [Review of the book Gestalt therapy in clinical practice: From psychopathology to the aesthetics of contact, by G. Francesetti, M. Gecele & J. Roubal, Eds.]. Psychotherapy, 51(3), 462–463.

Sprafkin, R. P. (1970). Communicator expertness and changes in word meanings in psychological treatment. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 17(3), 191–196. 

Tønnesvang, J., Sommer, U., Hammink, J., & Sonne, M. (2010). Gestalt therapy and cognitive therapy—Contrasts or complementarities? Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(4), 586–602. 

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 4
What are three examples in which changing words when speaking can increase self-awareness? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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